Winning, or Silencing?

First published at on October 29, 2007

It wasn’t the first time an audience defied expectations. This time it was in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. I was there with Glenn Stanton, my “debate buddy” from Focus on the Family, to discuss same-sex marriage. The only thing we knew about Rhinelander before arriving was that its number one cause of death is bar-room brawls—or so we had been told by several Wisconsinites, who warned us of the small town’s “redneck” reputation.

“Bar-room brawls?” Glenn joked. “I suppose that has heterosexuality written all over it.”

“Oh, we gays have them too,” I responded. “We just call them ‘hissy-fits.’”

Unlike most of our university debates, the Rhinelander event was advertised primarily to local residents, rather than students, and when we arrived we noticed lots of gray hair in the audience. An older crowd in a redneck town—Glenn’s territory. I braced myself.

Then the Q&A began, and one audience member after another attacked Glenn. I kept waiting for a critical question directed at me. Nothing.

After about an hour of Glenn’s getting grilled while I fielded softballs, I turned to him and announced, “Well, Glenn, this has been exactly the right-wing audience we expected in rural Wisconsin!” The audience howled with laughter.

“Are you sure they didn’t bus you guys in from Madison?” Glenn quipped back. I could tell that he was weary and that he appreciated the lighthearted moment.

The following week we debated again in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the same thing happened. I found myself wanting to stand up and shout, “This is the deep South, people. You’re supposed to be on HIS SIDE!”

It’s not that I’m complaining. I do these debates to convince people. Not to convince Glenn (although I’d like to think my time with him has had a positive effect). And not to convince ideologues, who have made up their minds and won’t budge no matter what. I do them to convince the fence sitters—folks who show up curious about the issue, eager to listen, willing to engage arguments. So when people agree with me, I should be happy, and I am.


But there are plenty of people who don’t agree with me. One merely has to look at voting patterns to realize this. Last November, Wisconsin voters passed an anti-gay marriage amendment 59-41%—and much of that majority came from more liberal towns than Rhinelander. Even college students are far from unanimous in supporting marriage equality. Which means that opponents are either not showing up, or not speaking up, at our debate events. Either way, I miss the opportunity to engage them.

Such engagement would have two potential benefits. First, it might help convince the opponents themselves—even if slowly and gradually. Second, it might help convince the fence-sitters who are watching, since they would receive “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (in the words of the great liberal theorist John Stuart Mill). The more we confront the opposition head-on, the more obvious their fallacies become. That’s why I’m willing to travel the country with someone from Focus on the Family addressing the same bad arguments over and over again.

It was the hope for such engagement that led me to interrupt the Q&A in Baton Rouge to plead for some audience opposition. “Any critical questions for me? Please?” I asked no fewer than three times. It felt like announcing “last call” at the bar: “Last call…last call for traditionalists…” Finally, a woman took me up on my challenge—sort of:

“I’m a religious conservative,” she began gently. “And I appreciate your kindness to Glenn and to us. But I haven’t spoken up because I feel a lot of hostility from the audience. I think more of us would show up and speak up if we didn’t feel like we would automatically be shouted down.” She didn’t offer any question—just that observation.

I was both impressed and surprised—impressed by her courage in speaking against the (immediate) tide, and surprised that she found the audience hostile. I could recall no anger or viciousness from the various questioners. But since they were on my side, perhaps I simply failed to notice.

Her remarks spotlighted an important distinction: it’s one thing to silence your opponents; it’s quite another to convince them. And sometimes—perhaps often—silencing is done at the expense of convincing.

The social pressure that makes certain views “taboo” has its uses. But political reality indicates that it’s not yet time to halt the conversation over same-sex marriage—certainly not in Rhinelander or Baton Rouge. Strange as it sounds, we may sometimes need to work at making people more comfortable—not less—in voicing their opposition to us.